The Billings Outpost

Smitten scribe searches for Miss Indian America

We called it “corn.” She called it “maize.” For a time the Mazola girl was the best known of American Indians. No one, not the militant show boat Russell Means, not Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, not even TV and movie actor Iron Eyes Cody came close.

A sprinkling of beauty queens in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade triggered memories of a young woman who visited Billings several decades ago. She was one of the more than 30 women who have held the title Miss Indian America. She became famous making Mazola commercials. The commercials began, “You call it corn. We call it maize.”

When I tracked her history on the digital Interstate, I found a half-dozen other guys looking for the same pageant winner. One who contacted the makers of Mazola, CPC International, was told the company has no record of the Indian pitch woman.

Maybe the company flak catcher who answered the phone was too busy or too lazy to research the question. Maybe she was tired of talking to callers with questions about the company‘s advertising.

The corporation recently settled a lawsuit brought by the attorney generals of 10 states who charged CPC with overstating the effectiveness of Mazola in lowering cholesterol. The suit cost the company $100,000.

I don’t know if the ad firm of Saatchi and Saatchi was responsible for the overly enthusiastic commercials, but I did learn that S&S quit CPC last April and was replaced by Backer Spielvogel Bates. Big companies shed ad agencies like spiel vogels molting in spring.

I gave up on Eastern corporations and focused again on my main interest: the Mazola princess.

I remembered working at The Gazette one Friday when I had spent the afternoon playing hooky, drinking beer or some other important activity not fully appreciated by my editor. A secretary walked past me, whispering, “The boss is looking for you.”

The boss said I was to interview Miss Indian America. Editors had been looking all over for me and said they were worried sick. I was sorry they found me. I thought myself too good to interview a beauty queen. That was clearly a job for one of the women attached to the Society desk.

My first glance at the pageant winner effected a change of heart. Her aura shone like August sun on an Iowa cornfield. She had bright hazel eyes and hair the shade of midnight. The interview was a gift.

The Miss Indian America pageant was held each year in Sheridan, Wyo. The celebration was an annual fair, carnival, celebration and campout bookended by a rodeo and a beauty contest. The event ran more than 30 years. It is still talked about among the Crow and Cheyenne but mostly by old men.

The Sheridan Chamber of Commerce directed me to the Sheridan Library. The event’s archives, a load of newspaper clippings, news releases, pamphlets and other forms of printed material fill a four-drawer file cabinet in the library’s Wyoming Room.

Soon, professional librarians and amateur historians filled my e-mail mailbox.

What was the fate of the now defunct pageant? In brief, it died of old age.

In 37 years the enthusiastic founding generation died off, became busy with their own businesses and careers or moved away. It became increasingly difficult to recruit replacements. The need to raise cash and recruit volunteers became a burden the diminished organization could no longer manage.

Organizers tried to keep Miss Indian America alive by selling the brand to another American city.

Dodging Sheridan’s proprietary claims, several cities made a play for the Miss Indian America excitement. Albuquerque, N.M., is probably the leader. A new pageant fit snugly into the huge and growing New Mexican powwow.

Albuquerque dubbed its beauty contest “Miss Indian World.”

Today, Miss Indian USA, Miss Indian Nations and Miss Native American struggle to keep pace.

In two hours with a phone pressed to my ear and eyes glued to a computer screen, I learned more than I wanted to know about pageants without finding a trace of the Mazola maiden.

Plowing through Google, the electric Encyclopedia Americana, I found that Corn Products International has been sold or traded a couple of times in the years since a Miss Indian America hawked the company’s signature product.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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